Thursday, April 25, 2013

Nelson Cheng on "The Magic Life"

What was your filmmaking background before setting out to make The Magic Life?

NELSON: I had just produced my first web series (The Consultants) -- so my background was pretty light. However, after the rush and angst of learning everything that you do the first time you produce something, I realized that I both had a decent amount of film equipment (or knowledge of) and connections to cinematographers and other film professionals that my mind started expanding in terms of the types of projects I could do. A documentary seemed daunting but feasible.

Where did the idea come from and what was your process for determining the film's subjects? 

NELSON: At the time, I was a member of the Magic Castle -- it's sort of the home / clubhouse for magician's all around the world and as a consequence, I got to know a lot of magicians. A story I often heard was something along the lines of that these magicians would meet someone, and that person would inevitably ask what they did. They would say they're a magician and the person would say something like, "Oh that's fantastic! That's great!" Then there would be this pause and they would be asked, "So what is it you actually do?" The original conceit was a documentary looking at "the business side of being a magician" -- this profession that people couldn't even conceive of as being a profession. 

In terms of determining the film's subjects -- initially, I just started filming magicians. I would then ask those magicians if they knew anyone else I should talk to and one magician led to another until I reached Dale Salwak -- a significant character in the film who runs the Chavez Studio of Magic. At the time, one of his students was Yang Yang, one of the film's main subjects. He had a certain joie de vivre that I responded to and we filmed a lot of Yang Yang and originally built much of the film around him.

However, after sharing some early footage with a very important contributor -- Penelope Falk (who won the editing prize at Sundance for "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work") -- Penny just thought we needed more and asked who else I had / knew. The first two names I mentioned were Matthew Noah Falk (I described him as a 20-something living a block from the Magic Castle and performing for tips on Hollywood Boulevard) and Michael Friedland (I described him as an NYU MBA graduate, successful in business, and just moved to L.A. to pursue a career in magic.) She said, "Those two sound interesting. I would go film them." So we did.

Can you talk about how you raised your budget and your financial plan for recouping your costs? 

NELSON: This project was self-financed. It's never cheap making films, but certainly the production costs of a documentary can be kept quite manageable. For me, at least, it's post and then festival / marketing related expenses which proved to be the majority of expenses. Regarding a financial plan for recouping costs -- I think the strong likelihood is I won't recoup the costs. Statistically, there are just very few docs that recoup their costs. The sale prices and other revenue simply aren't high enough. That being said, and I'm certainly not alone among filmmakers who feel this way, but simply hearing from and interacting with people who respond to and with whom this film resonates with has made it all worthwhile.

What camera(s) did you use and what did you love and hate about it?

NELSON: We used a number of different cameras. We primarily shot on the HVX-200 but also used the AF-100, the 7D, and -- believe it or not -- there's some footage from the Flip HD. I was pretty stunned that the Flip HD could hold up when blown up to a theater-size screen. It's not ideal, but usable. Also, a lot of those shots we simply would not have gotten or would've had a lot of trouble getting if we didn't have such a small / convenient camera available.

The HVX-200 is a good camera -- it's a real workhorse. The main drawback for me is that it's not that good in low light conditions. Also, no interchangeable lenses and the offloading of footage is a little cumbersome. The AF-100 (at the time I had only rented the camera -- now I own one), I think, is better than the HVX in every way. Bigger chip size, very good in low light conditions, interchangeable lenses, shoots to CF, etc. It's really terrific -- if I did another doc, I would primarily use the AF-100.

The 7D (and 5D Mark II) are really difficult cameras to use for shooting docs. Much harder to manage because you'll want to record sound to something like the Zoom H4n and the camera has that automatic shutoff thing after 10 min, etc. It's just not designed for docs -- the workflow is quite messy.

The Flip HD -- I certainly can think of improvements. Would love even higher picture quality (terrible in low light conditions) and just an overall upgrade in terms of its audio which can be quite bad -- but it's hard to beat its portability. I usually had a couple of Flip cams lying around just to take something spur of the moment.

How long did shooting take and did your vision for the movie change much during the shooting and editing process?

NELSON: We shot for about a year and a half. The vision changed quite a bit, frankly. I started off wanting to make something probably a lot more analytical -- investigating the business side of being a magician. Over time, it evolved into something -- for me at least, that was much more visceral -- following the stories of three fairly different individuals as they try and turn their passion into their career.

What was great about how it evolved was that it both gave a framework with which to look at the larger world of magic (talking to builders of magic, world champions of magic, famous magicians, etc.) but also asked questions along the lines of why some people make it and some don't -- how much of it is talent vs. attitude vs. perspective vs. support system, etc.

What was the smartest thing you did during production? The dumbest?

NELSON: The two smartest things were getting more experienced people involved and to just start filming. Re: getting more experienced people involved. As an example, I met Seth Keal -- one of the producers on "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work" -- after one of their Sundance screenings. I just loved that film and frankly, started randomly talking to him. He's a magician himself, became interested in the project, and offered to help. In addition to literally sharing all the details of what they shot "Joan" on (literally sending me links to the various pieces of equipment on B&H), he also introduced me to Penny Falk -- their editor.

As I mentioned earlier, Penny was instrumental in helping guide and shape the film from some of its earliest stages and introduced me to our wonderful editor, Erik Dugger, with whom she had previously co-edited a film. Penny felt that Erik's sensibility would both work well for this film and also that he and I would work well together -- and she was absolutely right.

The reason I also mention to just start filming was that I think it would been easy for me to sort of sit in stagnation -- especially because I didn't have any experience. So I could hang out for a long time paralyzed by fear of not knowing what I was doing, or that I was making a mistake, or even being afraid of what other people might say.

What was good about filming immediately was that one thing always led to another and, frankly, you start seeing problems and solving them -- especially when you get people involved. As a minor example, there's a scene in the film where one of our characters, Yang Yang, meets Lance Burton. I remember looking at the footage and just thinking it was a bit dark -- I mentioned this to Seth and he immediately told me, "Oh, buy an onboard light." That solved it. So sometimes it was small things and other times it was big things -- but by doing, we could get to fixing issues quickly rather than planning ourselves into oblivion.

The dumbest thing, and I'm not trying to be clever with this answer -- but it's the same two things, but on the flip side. I wish I got even more people involved. I'm certainly more secure and knowledgeable now in terms of what I know I can do and what I don't -- but at the time, everything was just such a mystery to me and I didn't always feel comfortable reaching out for help. Or even knowing who to go to.

I've thought about this in the context of when I was a product manager. When I worked as a PM, I liked to gather as much information as possible -- at times, I would literally read every customer service email for the products I worked on. The vast majority of information I came across was not actionable -- but some percentage was and all of it helped shape my view of the product.

So someone might have a thought on a particular sequence or music cue or even a magician that could strength a storyline -- all of it helps contribute to making an even stronger film and so I would've liked to have really pushed myself more in that aspect.

Re: filming right away -- I think it's always a fine balance between preparation and just doing it. I know people on the extremes -- those that plan so much they never do anything and those that do things too soon and could benefit from even a modicum of planning. I recently read an interview with David France, whose documentary, "How to Survive a Plague" is Oscar-nominated for Best Documentary this year. In it, he mentions that in preparation for making the doc (he was a first time filmmaker), he watched a documentary every day, for two years. What fantastic preparation. So that's a great lesson for me -- do but always push yourself in terms of how much you can prepare.

What has been the reaction to the movie by its subjects?

NELSON: I would say surprisingly good. Positive feedback from all of them and a number of subjects have appeared with us for various Q&As and the like. I only use the word surprisingly because being in a documentary is quite an intimate experience -- and we get to see many of our subjects in fairly substantive / private moments, so you never know how someone will react when they see it in that format.

I think one of the pieces of feedback that I've felt most proud of is when subjects or their friends say something along the lines of, "That's you." -- which I interpret as us having really captured the spirit and essence of who they are and those circumstances. 

And, finally, what did you learn from making the film that you have taken to other projects?

NELSON: I found making a film to be a fairly complete and fascinating process. I mentioned earlier that I used to work as a product manager -- as great and challenging of a job as that is, it's very different in the sense that there's a lot of visible and invisible institutional support / structure. That's something that was quite apparent when I started making this film -- there's no structure around you. Everything has to be built from the ground up -- from the nuts and bolts logistics to the network you invariably need.

I think the biggest thing I learned was that anything -- whether it's something completely brand new or a close variant of something you've previously done -- there's just a process and a way things are done or could be done. It's learning those things and just incrementally learning, getting better, and moving forward. Not to be paralyzed by the enormity of it all. There may be 1000 things you don't know at the start, but if you learn 3 of them every day -- you'll get there in a year. 

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